David Amidon and Shepard Davidson
Burns Levinson recently held a free webinar, "Access for All: ADA Compliant Virtual Meetings & Events." David Amidon, Chair of Burns’ Business Media Advisory Group, and partner Shepard Davidson, a well-known business litigator at the firm, share some highlights on how virtual event and meeting organizers can ensure legally-compliant events that individuals with access challenges can participate in.
Q. You work with many business media companies that organize and produce large-scale meetings, events and conferences throughout the year. How have they adjusted to this new virtual world and what do you know now that you didn’t know when the pandemic first hit last March?
Amidon: The biggest challenge early on, of course, was the pivot to virtual or remote events remote events and away from face-to-face and in-person gatherings. Most organizers really stepped up, evaluating and adopting robust technology platforms, repurposing content, and ultimately delivering a quality experience to their customers. One thing we know now, virtual is here to stay. Even when the pandemic abates and assemblage restrictions are dropped, organizers are seeing the value proposition in the more-sustained engagement opportunities afforded by virtual.
Q. What have been, and continue to be, some of the biggest challenges for meeting and event organizers in creating gatherings that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
Davidson: It starts with appreciating the size and scale of today’s disability community and the opportunity it presents as a growing constituency. Operationally, it’s about understanding the regulatory and best-practices guidelines, applying them, and being very responsive to input and feedback from your stakeholders about the kinds of accommodations that will increase accessibility for the broader community. This will not only reduce the likelihood and possible negative effects of legal entanglements from non-compliance but will also position your company as a forward-thinking organizer and add brand value.
Q. What are the best practices to ensure compliance with the ADA and to mitigate risk of a lawsuit?
Amidon: First and foremost, get familiar with what’s legally required. Restrictions exist at the federal level under the ADA, and some states (like California and New York) have their own requirements. Avoiding legal claims starts with being informed. Second, be sure that your virtual platform itself is compliant. Work with a knowledgeable consultant to evaluate and assess the platform for things like keyboard navigation, screen reader capabilities, on-screen text magnification, and closed captioning or automatic speech recognition. Third, be proactive. Poll your customers ahead of the event or meeting to get a clearer sense of what sorts of accommodations are being sought. Finally, be responsive if questions or complaints come in – the worst thing is to delay and ignore negative input.
Q. ADA website accessibility lawsuits against large and small companies have exploded over the past several years. Tell us a little about these lawsuits?
Davidson: The current state of the law is that most consumer facing websites need to be set up so that people who are visually or aurally impaired can have the same experience as those who can see and hear. If not, the owner of the website is vulnerable to a suit under the ADA. While a plaintiff in such a suit can’t be awarded damages, he or she can be awarded reasonable legal fees in connection with the suit. Further, some states have their own statutes that do allow for damages, most notably California. If you do business there and your website is not compliant, you also could be liable for a minimum of $4,000 per violation.
Amidon: Interestingly, we don’t have much information on non-accessibility claims against virtual meeting and event organizers, likely since it’s really only taken off in the last year. I’d also attribute it to the larger organizer community being proactive about accessibility – that’s been the experience I’ve had with my clients.
Q. Can a company shield themselves from liability by hiring the right technology vendor? What should companies look for in these vendor relationships to ensure ADA compliance?
Amidon: Certainly, understanding the organizer’s business and how the levels of engagement exist on that platform is critical. Look for providers that offer up their expertise around accessibility. Do they have compliance testing data? Do they use third-party audits? In contracting with a vendor, be sure that they stand behind their business assurances, by offering appropriate indemnification to the organizer for non-compliance concerns.
Q. If a company gets a demand letter regarding ADA-related accessibility, what should they do?
Davidson: The minute a demand letter hits your inbox, deal with it immediately. Call counsel. Find and preserve relevant business information. Under counsel’s guidance, investigate the facts and circumstances underlying the claim or claims. Respond to the claimant (or have counsel do so) with assurances that this is being taken seriously and you’ll get back to them promptly.
Q. Do you think the virtual conference is here to stay or will it likely go back to “normal” once the pandemic is over? Or do you expect there will be some sort of hybrid model that accommodates both in-person and virtual attendees?
Amidon: As I mentioned earlier, I believe virtual is here to stay. It offers greater flexibility in sustaining engagement. It allows expanded attendance by eliminating many of the barriers and challenges around in-person events, such as travel, housing/food costs, and booth construction and decorating. The likely model? I’d guess many traditionally in-person events will choose a hybrid format, offering options to attend in person or by remote means.
Q. Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our audience?
Davidson: “An ounce of protection is equal to a pound of cure.” If you have a consumer facing website, have it evaluated by an expert who specializes in website accessibility and make sure you bring it into compliance with the relevant rules. If you fail to do that, it likely only is a matter of time before you get sued, have to pay a penalty and are ordered to bring your website into compliance anyway.
Amidon: While the first priority is to avoid legal claims, understand that there’s more to it than that. It’s an opportunity to increase your audience and customer base by tapping into a growing segment of our population for whom meaningful participation in traditional in-person meetings and events is difficult, or even not possible. Also, it paints the organizer as empathetic to accessibility-challenged people, which can be a big boost to the brand.
David Amidon is chair of the Business Media Advisory Group at the law firm of Burns & Levinson in Boston. He has deep expertise in the business media industry as an attorney and former industry executive. Amidon’s clients range from stand-alone event/expo organizers to the vendors and technology providers that support them. He has also helped run two business media companies, including an Orlando, Florida-based tradeshow, conference and event organizer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shepard Davidson is a partner and former co-chair of Burns & Levinson’s Business Litigation Group and a MCLE-certified mediator. He has helped many companies mitigate their risks related to ADA complaints and successfully resolve disputes when they arise. He can be reached at email@example.com.